Phantom pregnancy

Phantom pregnancy

What is it?

A phantom, or false pregnancy, is a condition in which a non-pregnant woman exhibits all the classic symptoms of pregnancy and is firmly convinced that she is pregnant even when clear medical evidence shows that she is not. The medical term for this condition is pseudocyesis.

How is it diagnosed?

The first thing a woman with a phantom pregnancy will probably do is visit her GP or antenatal clinic complaining of all the usual symptoms and minor discomforts of early pregnancy such as absence of periods; breast enlargement; nausea and vomiting; weight gain and abdominal distension. If a urine sample is tested at this stage it will confirm the existence, or otherwise of a pregnancy, but a woman suffering from a true pseudocyesis will continue to insist that she is pregnant, regardless of medical opinion.

Who is at risk?

While the incidence of true pseudocyesis is extremely rare, the most 'at risk' group of women are those in their late thirties or early forties who desperately want a child and have been trying to conceive for many years. These women will normally be quite stable emotionally but will have a tendency to become very emotional over the whole question of pregnancy.

Pseudocyesis can also occur in some women who have lost a pregnancy or a baby and, while it is probably an emotional reaction to their trauma, there is also evidence to suggest that a temporary hormonal imbalance may be a contributory factor.

How is it treated?

The treatment of a woman who is suffering from a true pseudocyesis requires very careful and sympathetic consideration, often with the help of a supportive partner or family network.

Despite the existence of positive medical proof that she is not pregnant, the woman suffering from a phantom pregnancy may remain convinced of her pregnancy for some time, which is one of the reasons why follow-up counselling may have to be arranged for her.

All the major Irish maternity hospitals have access to trained counsellors who are familiar with the trauma experienced by women who desperately want a baby and have not conceived, and GPs can also arrange counselling sessions for patients if required.

Very severe emotional disturbance may follow in a woman who finally comes to the realisation that she has been suffering from a false pregnancy. It is at this stage that the sympathy and understanding of those closest to her is vital, and that the services of a trained counsellor may be offered.

Is there a medical explanation for phantom pregnancy?

The phenomenon of phantom pregnancy is a perplexing one for the medical profession. Nobody has yet come up with an explanation as to why a very small percentage of women actually exhibit all the classic symptoms of pregnancy such as weight gain, breast enlargement and abdominal distension when they are not pregnant at all. The fact that a woman actually looks pregnant makes the job of her GP even more difficult when he has to try to explain to her that all her urine samples are testing negative for pregnancy.

Phantom pregnancy or pseudocyesis cannot just be dealt with from a medical or gynaecological perspective without taking due consideration of the severe underlying emotional distress and turmoil which has led to the diagnosis of such a condition in the first place.

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